All of a sudden, you are a Nobody. And your home town is a ruin

It has been almost one year since Kapitolina Kolobova (25), a theatre actress and directing student, started living in Prague. Not because Prague is a city of her dreams; not because she received an excellent job offer; not because she relocated over here to follow her boyfriend. The war was and has been the reason, as with many of her fellow countrymen.

The outbreak of the war changed Kharkiv, the city where graduated actress Kapitolina Kolobova lived, studied directing, and worked in a theatre, overnight.

A peaceful city turned into a dangerous area. One’s everyday existence included the howling of sirens, explosions, missiles, gunfire…

“Our lives were at stake every day. This is why my boyfriend, my mum and I left to stay with our distant relatives in central Ukraine where living was safer. We started thinking of what to do next. My boyfriend is an actor too; we both worked in the same theatre. All theatres shut down when the war began. Both of us were suddenly unemployed, making matters even worse for our psyche. All you can do is sit back, eat, read the news, and get stressed out. When both mum and my boyfriend started saying that it would be better if at least I was somewhere far away and safe, I couldn’t even imagine it at first. But, since I had an opportunity to join DAMU in Prague as an intern and I have been interested in Czech theatre for a long time, enjoying its specificities, mindset, and approaches, I said I’d try it,” recounts Kapitolina Kolobova who eventually decided to take the admission tests for Authorial Acting and is now studying a master’s programme in her first year.

When you cannot even hide in the cellar

The decision to leave Ukraine was even tougher for her because, right from the outset, it was obvious that wherever she went, she would have to tackle everything all by herself.

Mum was just recovering from a major surgery – the total endoprosthesis of the hip joint, expecting a long period of rehabilitation and facing difficulties even when walking with crutches, so for her, a long trip was out of the question.

Her health at the time is illustrated, for example, by the fact that when sirens sounded the alarm in Kharkiv, mum was unable to go down to the cellar; instead, she hid under the stairs on the ground floor.

For Kapitolina’s boyfriend, going to Prague along with her was also not an option. As a male, he was not allowed to leave Ukraine during wartime.

“I was exploring the options for getting my boyfriend to Prague, but it wasn’t possible. He needed a letter to the effect that he was coming here either as a student or as a guest actor on invitation from a specific theatre. His friends in Germany got a job invitation for him, but it didn’t work; the military wouldn’t let him cross the Ukrainian border,” explains Kapitolina who, at the time, had no idea she would not see her loved ones for the next seven months.

All alone

I am trying to imagine what it is like to leave your loved ones, not knowing when you will see them again, and face life in a foreign country where you have to start from scratch: start building your name and your acting reputation all over again, proving to others what you can do and have to offer, and getting used to the environment of a new university, new schoolmates, new teachers, and a different style of instruction… It is quite a big leap into the unknown that certainly takes courage and strength for overcoming obstacles, which are certain to come your way sooner or later.

“Initially, the toughest part of it all was – and still is, in fact – that, all of a sudden, you’re a Nobody. You are in a country where you know no one and are all alone,” Kapitolina says. She adds that, personally, she finds it very difficult not to have anyone to speak to about her feelings and worries.

“When you speak to Ukrainians about yourself and your personal story, quite often they’ll start telling you they are worse off and that I actually have nothing to complain about compared with them. When I want to speak to Czechs about something in my life, it’s not easy for me because I have to formulate and express the idea in Czech, which makes each of my messages somewhat simplistic… In addition, I think that Czechs can never fully understand my situation. That’s normal, of course, and thank God they can’t, because they don’t have the war experience like we Ukrainians have. For example, when I told someone that my mum has stayed in Ukraine after a major surgery, people often responded with horror: What a disaster, what are you going to do about it? I say, nothing. What should I do? There’s nothing I can do. It’s wartime… Sometimes, I get tired of all the explaining and the reactions of some Czechs. So, I often say nothing.”

Acting as a therapy

The beginning of the war caught Kapitolina as a graduated actor, who at the same time kept progressing in her field and completing directing studies in a master’s programme in university in Kharkiv. Her theatre career was taking off. Then, at DAMU in Prague, she reverted to the student status again.

“My Czech is obviously not perfect; while I do speak Czech, it’s not good enough for professional, stage acting. I get it. But it’s not easy,” she admits.

Despite that, however, she started seeking various acting and theatre projects she could be involved in immediately after arriving in Prague. She has been successful. At this point in time, she performs in the Language Barrier Equal show in Prague’s Divadlo komedie.

“It is more of a performative show in the form of an encounter between Ukrainians and Czechs, during which each side speaks their mother tongue and tries to understand others despite the language barrier. The atmosphere is a bit like when visiting your grandma, drinking tea and discussing very simple topics such as childhood, dreams, home, and so on,” she describes.

She is also part of an artistic project in the Estates Theatre. “I passed an audition for the opera choir. I’m no opera singer, but I played Magdalena in the Jesus Christ Superstar rock opera back in Ukraine. So, I have some voice to offer,” Kapitolina says and adds that she certainly wants to continue pursuing acting jobs here in the Czech Republic, also trying directions other than classic acting – for example, combined with performance and motion theatre.

For her, acting opportunities here do not just mean making a living and supporting her mum. Without a doubt, acting is also encouragement for her, reassuring her that, despite the war and all the difficulties it brings, she has not lost her talent, her professionalism, or – most importantly – herself.

Back home again

She welcomed the new year in Kharkiv, visiting Ukraine at the end of last year for the first time since the outbreak of the war. She says she had been imagining her hometown as rather apocalyptic most of the time spent away from it. She was horrified by what awaits her – how will it affect her mind, and will she be able to cope with it?

“But when I arrived, I basically started perceiving it matter-of-factly: This house is no more; that one has no windows; and this one over here is just debris now… When you are in that environment and see it with your own eyes, you don’t take it as a disaster: you take it as a fact. You know if you want something specific to change, crying won’t help – you have to do something towards that goal. For example, all the windows in our apartment are broken. If I were desperate about it, it wouldn’t be any good. But when I say, okay, there is nothing I can do now because it’s no point replacing them while the war continues, so let’s have new windows made once we can, it’s the best way to approach it,” explains Kapitolina.

She adds that while sirens can be heard in the city every day, the city centre is not as dangerous now as it was. Reportedly, missiles hit more often outside the city now. And, even though many Ukrainians left due to the war, life has not stopped in Kharkiv. People just got used to living in a different reality.

“For example, I saw a mum with a little girl who kept on walking in the park even when a siren sounded an alarm… It appears that the people who left for Europe are much more nervous about the war. They don’t know about their families, they have a refugee status, and, in a sense, they face bigger fears and uncertainty. Those in Ukraine simply had to get used to a new life, set their lives up differently because they wouldn’t manage it mentally otherwise: you cannot just cry and sink into despair every day.”

Sirens are not a big deal anymore

Before the war, there were many private theatres, three state-operated ones, and the National Opera in Kharkiv. Just one of the venues has never stopped working – the one in which Kapitolina acted and her boyfriend continues acting. Two more theatres opened only recently.

“Of course, working in a theatre is dangerous, but my boyfriend and the others feel the urge to go on. My friends and colleagues developed a new show during the war; today, as we’re speaking, they are going to play it in Kyiv. Some theatre troupes even go to perform on the frontline. The majority of theatres are not working these days, though. High concentration of people in one location means a risk. To say nothing of the fact that, when sirens announce a missile attack, it is difficult to both play and watch a theatre performance.” 

She adds she did see a show in ‘her’ theatre while on her new year visit to Kharkiv. She knew from colleagues that there had been not a single show without a siren howling. She experienced it too. 

“When the siren sounds, people should hide. But, almost nobody does anymore. I didn’t see anyone hiding during a performance. Everybody kept sitting, maybe cowering more in their seats. It seemed to me that the people didn’t want to give up the few joyful moments that theatre can give them in these difficult times.”

I keep believing

When I ask Kapitolina Kolobova how she sees her future life, and more importantly, how she wants to see it, she replies without hesitation that, ideally, she would like to work as an actress. She could return to her theatre in Kharkiv at any moment, but she is keenly aware that the war and theatre present a difficult combination and that the situation will not improve quickly once the war is over.

“Ukraine enjoys support around the world right now, and that’s nice; I believe Ukraine will win, but the situation after the war will not be easy at all… So, I think I actually want to work in the Czech Republic. But I know that, as a foreigner, I will always speak with an accent, and that will limit my acting options, plus I have no idea what other career opportunities I can have here. With that said, I have my boyfriend and mum in Ukraine and I don’t want the family to be separated. For the time being, my boyfriend and I are each going our own way. He works as an actor and set designer in Kharkiv, and I’m studying at DAMU right now and trying to work here. When something changes for me or for him, we’ll have to make the decision on what to do next,” Kapitolina explains.

At the same time, she is aware of the risks that the current mode of their relationship entails. “Being separated for such a long time, each of us has their own life – my boyfriend in Kharkiv, and me in Prague. If we want to be together again, one of us will have to give up their previous life.”

I want to know what gives Kapitolina energy and makes living easier for her when she feels sad. “It’s faith, whether in myself or in something else. Knowing I have a family that will support me at all times gives me strength. They are far away, but they exist… Also, I have this defence mechanism that will kick in during difficult moments and make me start doing something: I study or join a new project. That helps,” she says with conviction.

One of the things she had to adjust to in the Czech Republic was living at a slower tempo as opposed to Ukraine. “It’s calmer here; you can study, you can ponder what you want to do and how… That’s nice, but whenever anyone starts convincing me that there is no need to hurry, no reason to fear missing out on something because all my life is ahead of me – well, I don’t get that. I have always been used to living to the full, here and now. And I won’t let even the war take this mindset away from me.”